Erika Gándara joined the Guadalupe Police Department in June 2009. An officer was shot dead the same week. Since then, the other seven officers that constituted the police force have all resigned. Gándara is now the only officer in the small town in the Juárez Valley. But she forges on. "I am better off alone than in bad company," she said.
El Paso Times
by: Adriana Gómez Licón
GUADALUPE, Mexico -- The only police officer in a long and deadly stretch of border towns in the Juárez Valley is 28-year-old Erika Gándara.
She works in plainclothes but keeps a semi-automatic rifle, an AR-15, hidden between cushions in her stark office. A bulletproof vest hangs near the door. A portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mexican version of the Virgin Mary, adorns one wall. These items are all Gándara has for company at the station.
Eight officers constituted the police force of Guadalupe. One was shot dead the week Gándara joined the department as a dispatcher in June 2009. The other seven resigned within a year, driven out by fear, Gándara said. The last one quit in June, and no potential replacements have applied, Gándara said.
"I am here out of necessity," she said.
Women have increasingly become the face of police forces in rural areas outside Juárez. The territory borders a string of small Texas towns, including San Elizario, Tornillo and Fabens, and stretches all the way to Presidio.
In the Mexican town of Praxedis Guerrero, also in the Juárez Valley, the police chief is a 20-year-old college student with a department staffed by 12 women and two men. Most of them, including the chief, are unarmed.
The appointment of this young police chief created an international media frenzy. In contrast, Gándara has received little notice, even though her town of 9,000 is larger than Praxedis.
It is chilling that inexperienced policewomen are left to safeguard violent towns, said Maki Haberfeld, a professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She said cultural perceptions account for females running these police departments.
"They are operating under the assumption that the killers would be more likely to kill men than to kill women because of the machismo culture," Haberfeld said.
Speaking specifically of Gándara's situation, Haberfeld said, "It is jeopardizing her life."
Gándara did not go through any type of police academy or formal training. Still, she said, given the corruption in Mexican police forces, she may not be in the worst position.
"I am better off alone than in bad company," she said.
Police forces that help drug cartels are rampant in her country. Even though her salary is only about $7,000 a year, Gándara said, she is not susceptible to bribes.
"If they want to kill me, they can go ahead and do it. I don't want to be involved in those dirty businesses," she said.
U.S. Border Patrol officials said the Juárez Valley is an attractive drug corridor for two organized crime operations -- the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels. They are presumably responsible for an epidemic of arsons, kidnappings and killings.
The turf war in the valley reached a fever pitch in March. Arsonists destroyed homes and businesses. Cartel members told townspeople to leave or face death.
Residents said many fled to West Texas towns. Others moved to Juárez, a city also torn by violence.
The exodus did not bring peace did to the Juárez Valley or even to some who left it.
Gunmen arrived in June at the Juárez home of the former mayor of Guadalupe and killed him. The man, Jesús Manuel Lara Rodríguez, had sought refuge in the city.
In late October, riflemen attacked a bus carrying maquila dora workers, killing three women and a man, near the town of Guadalupe.
"We are living in a mess, believe me," said a 24-year-old woman named Mari.
Gunmen killed her husband last year. "People here are scared," she said, an understatement in a shattered town.
Most houses and shops in Guadalupe are abandoned. A bakery, a liquor store and two groceries are among the few businesses still open.
Traffic persists, despite the lack of commerce. Late-model trucks kick up clouds of dust that blind people who still walk the streets.
The only sounds of laughter come from children on the school playground.
Women stand on the corner near the elementary school, but not for long. They leave their houses only to pick up their children.
Almost nobody visits the plaza anymore. On a recent day, only a few construction workers remodeling the town hall rested on public benches.
Gándara responds to terrible crimes and carnage, such as the bus shooting. In another recent case, a man was stoned to death.
But compared with their counterparts in the United States, municipal police in Mexico are limited. Gándara, for instance, does not investigate murders. Instead, she calls state police.
Sometimes, police from the adjacent municipality accompany Gándara to the more gruesome crimes. At least a dozen soldiers patrol outside and inside the town hall where she works.
Regularly, however, she travels by herself without the army for an escort.
"The protection is coming from up there," she said, gesturing toward the heavens.
People in town know Gándara because she is out and about. Former police officers taught her how to fire her rifle and pistol. Soldiers patrolling Guada lupe sometimes mentor her on details of law enforcement, she said.
Gándara grew up in Guada lupe and attended school until ninth grade. She is single and without children.
She said she does not know which gangs operate in the area. Gándara naturally confronts narco traffickers, she said, but cannot investigate their operations.
Gándara said her job is more difficult than that of Marisol Valles García, police chief of the adjacent municipality of Praxedis.
"Her ideas have more to do with family values, with social programs," she said. "Our job is public safety."
Only 10 miles away from Gándara, Valles held a meeting with her female officers on a recent day. Valles, like Gándara, has a bulletproof vest that hangs inside a cage. But Valles has no weapon. She does not know how to shoot a gun.
Valles said she hopes to restore peace by having female police officers gain residents' trust.
Valles' position as chief is mostly administrative. The mayor of Praxedis, José Luis Guerrero, said Valles, at age 20, was the most qualified person for the job.
People in Guadalupe, with their one-member police force, say they are more vulnerable to attacks and kidnappings. Many continue leaving for the city. The dangerous road from southeast Juárez to the valley towns rich in cotton is rarely traveled.
"We don't feel safe, not at all." Mari said. "We are living at God's mercy."
Meet the only police office in the Juárez Valley's Guadalupe
Weaponry:"Armed with an AR-15 and a revolver.
Education: She finished 9th grade.
Family: Single, no children.
Background: Born and raised in Guadalupe, Mexico.